Q: We have been seriously talking about opening up our marriage and I think I’m ok with it now. At 40 and having been out of the dating scene for 20+ years, I’m not even sure how to go about finding someone. I’ve been talking to a friend of a friend that may be interested and we have sexted once, but I’m not sure if he’s really down or not. Do you know other people that have open marriages? I’ve been hearing that the younger generation is more ok with open relationships. What are your thoughts?
A: Consensual non-monogamy seems to be getting quite the press lately, and I think a lot has to do with the internet. Although the idea of having multiple partners has been around for ages (think concubines, harems, etc.), it’s becoming less taboo because of the ability to connect virtually with so many others who are curious as well. I also believe that as we evolve, we are always looking to better “adapt” to new knowledge that we acquire.
A brief history lesson, shall we?
The truth, whether it’s easy to hear or not, is that sexual monogamy is not a biological “thing”. It’s a cultural and religious construct that many are content to align with. Marriage was more of a business/logistical decision to protect and preserve property and assets – it did not begin for love and sexual pleasure. Sexual monogamy was born out of wanting to control who women slept with so there was never a question as to who the child belonged to – again – this was important in terms of lineage and the passing down of assets.
So, here’s my own take on what’s happened to monogamous relationships…
The main reasons for creating marriage and monogamy have sort of gone away for most of us, yet the expectations have remained. If someone is royalty or insanely wealthy and they want to know who their biological child is, we have paternity tests now. So….there’s that.
Now, we have monogamous couples who are married and wondering where lust and passion have gone, or why they are struggling to be satisfied with one person for a lifetime. Humans are not designed to be sexually monogamous. As a matter of fact, there’s only about 3%-5% of mammal species (humans included!) that are monogamous for life.
The urge to stray will be there because of human nature, but what we choose to do with that urge is what makes the difference. I speak to so many people who are riddled with guilt over lusting after someone else, and I have to explain to them that I would actually be MORE surprised if they weren’t! So, what do we do?
We make a choice. Sexual monogamy is a daily choice that we make – oftentimes without thinking. The truth is, we all have the free will to walk out and be sexual with someone else. So, what keeps us from doing it? Well, we already know that there are many who DO choose to act on the urges, and the consequences can be devastating to the relationship. Some may remain sexually monogamous but feel bored and resentful, and others may not have any issues with being sexually monogamous at all! Then there’s the rest…
If you haven’t watched the Ted Talk by Dr. Jess O’Reilly, titled “Monogamish”, do yourself a favor and watch it. This is where I believe most people fall in terms of monogamy. Research has found that very few relationships THRIVE in 100% monogamous relationships, and very few THRIVE in 100% open relationships. The majority of us actually exist somewhere along the spectrum. Now, before you take that the wrong way, let’s talk about what I actually mean by “spectrum”. Relationships aren’t always black and white in terms of sexual behavior.
So, what sort of behaviors can be found on this spectrum? Mind you, these would all have to be CONSENSUAL and AGREED UPON or else you’re risking betrayal, infidelity, and ultimately, the end of a relationship. To give you some examples (from more vanilla to less vanilla):
- Flirting with other people (with your partner knowing)
- Discussing people that you both find sexy, and maybe using it as fuel in the bedroom
- Going to a strip club together and watching your partner get a lap dance
- Sexting a third party (again, with your partner either participating or knowing that you’re doing it)
- Exchanging videos or pictures with another couple online (there are safety tips to this, so please don’t do this if you haven’t thought it through. The internet can be amazing, but also very dangerous.)
- Going to sex clubs to watch others have sex
- Occasional make-out sessions with a mutually agreed-upon third person
- Agreeing on specific parameters for consensual non-monogamy (i.e. must be in a different state or certain distance away, certain sexual behaviors being off-limits, not engaging in sexual behaviors with the same person more than once, no exchanging of contact information, etc.)
To answer the other questions – yes, I do know people who have open relationships. Does it work for them? Yes. Does it work for everyone? Nope. The younger generation seems to be more open to it, but they are also more open to other non-traditional lifestyle choices as well. So, I think as a general rule, younger folks seem to be likely to challenge the status quo, rather than roll with it.
My personal thoughts…
- I think it can be a viable option for some long term relationships to keep the spice alive, and satisfy the sexual and emotional urge for variety.
- I think people sometimes jump into it way too quickly, and unfortunately, it’s not something that can be erased. Remember that fantasy is almost always better than reality.
- There MUST be agreements and parameters along the way
- Take it step-by-step, and don’t go from sexual monogamy directly into sex with others – try the smaller steps first (see the list of monogamy spectrum examples above) and build a foundation as you go.
- Communication is non-negotiable. Jealousy is a human emotion and not to be ignored. Just talk about it.
- Opening up a marriage should never be done to save a failing one.
- To remotely begin to navigate an open marriage, your CURRENT relationship should be as foundationally sound as possible.
I urge you to do your research first. Check out online communities of others who have been in the lifestyle for a while, and pick their brain. Sometimes, we get so excited about something sexual, that we neglect to think about what could go wrong. Seeking a sex therapist is also another option to help navigate this process.
Soap box over.